Don't Shirk the Dirty Work

How do you implement tough decisions in humane ways? Consider these four questions and seven keys to doing the dirty work of leadership cleanly.

by Glenn Reynolds

When I was small, my mother prided herself on keeping my clothes and me clean. One day she left me with my aunt who decided it was time for me to get dirty — very dirty. She let me play outside — not in dirt, but in a pile of coal. When my mother picked me up, I was covered in coal dust.

Sometimes, as leaders, we want to shirk the dirty work of leadership. Every leader must do things that upset and hurt people — even in the church. As the leader, it is your job to discipline employees, terminate employment relationships, initiate organizational change, confront issues holding the organization back, and deny budget requests. Call it dirty work, heavy lifting, or making a tough call with an employee; leaders must do the hard things.

A leader who refuses to complete the dirty work of leadership can be guilty of emotional embezzlement.

Most leaders never consider financial embezzlement — stealing dollars from the organization. But, many leaders consistently commit emotional embezzlement — stealing the future of the organization by not doing the dirty work of leadership. We do not want to pay the penalty of upsetting people, so we refuse to do the required heavy lifting.

The best leaders do not delay or duck the difficult; instead, they confront problems directly and quickly. The most challenging question is often what to confront and what to leave alone. Years ago I heard a chapel speaker at Central Bible College assert that the hardest task of ministry is knowing the difference between what to confront and what to leave alone. After 20 years of pastoral ministry, I believe he was right. So, before you make decisions your team is not going to like, what questions do you need to ask?

Is It Necessary?

Reprimands, dismissals, changes in direction, and other moves are often the most effective choice when dealing with difficult staff situations. But before you pull the trigger, make sure it is absolutely necessary. The effective leader asks, “Why am I doing this? Am I doing it because it is right or because I have not thought of another solution?” If there is a way to achieve the same result without having to throw a boulder in the water and deal with the waves, can you do it? Or, is it necessary to make the tough call and deal with the staff consequences?

Do You Have the Power and Resources To Carry Out Your Decision?

Unfortunately, sometimes leaders who have every justification to make difficult decisions simply do not have the power to do it the right way. They may lack the support of key board members. There may not be the organizational energy to complete the needed transformation. They may not have the change in their pockets to see the decision through to the end. As Jesus reminded us, it is good to find out if we have all it takes to finish the task before we start building the tower (Luke 14:28–30).

Is the Culture on Your Side?

Whether by design or by default, every organization has a culture. Culture consists of the unspoken rules of how we relate to one another in the organization. Church culture can be an interesting and confusing place to work. For example, most churches want the pastor and worship leader to present excellent worship services, but may recoil at the idea that people must audition for the choir. After all, does not God see our hearts and just ask us to make a joyful noise.

Before you plot your course, look at the culture. Is it on your side or is it going to work against you? You may need to work on the culture before you can work on the problem.

Are You in It for the Long Haul?

If you are going to cut and run when the heat turns up, then you are not ready to do the dirty work of leadership. If you duck out at the first sign of a struggle, you may need to find a different kind of work. But, if you are ready to outlast the critic, follow the course God has laid out, to stay until the dirty work is done, then it is time to make the tough calls involving your team.

If you can answer in the affirmative, then you are ready to do the dirty work of leadership.

Seven Keys To Doing the Dirty Work of Leadership Cleanly

How do you implement tough decisions in humane ways? After all, you are the shepherd to those on your team, not just the boss.

Get key leaders on board

Who are the major influencers in your organization? Who are the stakeholders? Before you get your hands dirty, it is important to make sure these influencers are behind you, but not that far behind you.

Implement wisely

Leaders think sooner, deeper, and longer than others in the organization. When you need to make tough staff or leadership decisions, think about who these decisions will affect, who will oppose them, who will be for it, what are the unintended consequences, and a host of other questions. In addition, you need to create an implementation plan to answer those questions before people ask them.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

When you are doing something the team or volunteers might find upsetting, communicate early and often the necessity of the choice you have made. Key volunteers, other staff members, and board members all need to know why, not just what. It is often not the first meeting that matters. It is the second and third meeting — after they have talked to their spouses or friends about the issues, after they have had time to think about it. The effective leader does everything possible to communicate to everyone who will be affected by the decision — not just in a way that spins the positive results, but also in a way that details some of the negative issues that might arise.

Care about people

Sure you must do the heavy lifting; but as you do, remember: never humiliate, belittle, or bad-mouth staff or volunteers on the other side of the issue. If you set a tone that does not honor and respect others — even in conflict — then others will follow your lead in creating a culture of backbiting and name-calling. Then, you will have a real staff infection on your hands. Finally, remember the skunk theory of conflict. If you get in a fight with a skunk, nobody can tell who the skunk is.

Keep your mouth shut

The temptation to share confidential information to buttress your position lurks around every corner as you do the dirty work of leadership. But divulging sensitive or confidential information can harm employees, volunteers, your organization, and the trust others have in you as a leader.

Break the cycle of revenge

When you meet opposition to your choices, the tendency will be to shut out that staff member in the future, paint that volunteer in an unflattering light, or worse. If you take up the urge for revenge, you have made yourself the issue, instead of the solution. When you make it personal, you lose the moral high ground and abdicate your spiritual authority.

The best leaders learn the fine art of emotional separation — how to divide the event from the person. As you make the tough decisions of leadership, keep forgiveness close by your side. It not only breaks your own vicious cycle of revenge, but it helps staff members and volunteers you may have hurt to let go of their anger.

Do not delay

Delay can cause more problems. Hope is not a strategy. Just hoping things change never makes the problem go away. The effective leader refuses to delay painful decisions and actions. You need to decide nobody else is going to do your dirty work for you. You cannot hire a consultant to do it or blame it on the board; you must do the hard work of leadership. That is why you are the leader.

So, where do you need to get your hands dirty? What decision are you putting off? What program needs to be started or stopped? What key volunteer needs to be confronted? What staff member needs to be let go? Before you do the dirty work of leadership, make sure you are ready. Then, if you follow the seven commandments, maybe you will not get too dirty. My mother will be proud.